President's Newsletter 
Volume 13 - Number 2 - November 2000

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Conference Presidential Address

By Jac A.M. Vennix 
Sustainability in the Third Millennium August 6 - 10, 2000 Bergen, Norway

Dear Fellow System Dynamicists,

First of all my thanks go to all those who helped to organise this year's conference. I am happy to see that a record number of people did register for the conference. Of course you are all aware that this year we are in a very special place. Not only is Bergen the city of European culture 2000, Bergen is also the place where Pål Davidson successfully established his international master's program in system dynamics. In addition this is also a special year and it is quite an honour to be your president in the year 2000 and I consider it a challenge to make a start with a few major breakthroughs at the start of this new millennium. As you all know, the presidential address is aimed at providing a reflection on the state of the society and its direction for the future. So let us first take a look at what has been accomplished so far.

Although Jay Forrester published his first paper on system dynamics by the end of the fifties, it was not until the eighties that a small group of enthusiastic volunteers established the System Dynamics Society. Since then, interest in system dynamics (and system-dynamics-related systems thinking) has been growing worldwide. Without attempting to be exhaustive, and in arbitrary order, here are a few things which give an impression of what has been accomplished: A professional journal has been established (and it has gone from two to four issues per year). Research conferences have been organised on an annual basis, and they have improved over the years, the latest development being the organisation of the first PhD. colloquium just prior to this year's conference by our own students.

Many people in academia aren't aware of the existence of system dynamics.

Major, almost revolutionary, changes have been accomplished in software tools to construct and analyse system dynamics models. System dynamics is taught at a variety of places nowadays, on a more or less regular basis. Consulting firms are increasingly using system dynamics in their work. Membership has been increasing at a rapid rate, particularly in recent years. The list of sponsors of the System Dynamics Society is long and still growing. An electronic discussion list is active and very much alive. There is even an archive of these discussions. Our web presence is getting better and better. The Society office has not only employed many new initiatives, it has also taken a firm lead in making many of the things we do much more professional than they used to be. In short, in just a couple of decades much has been accomplished: from a small group of advocates the Society has grown to a worldwide society with more than 1000 members listed in the membership directory (and probably even more practitioners) in over 50 different countries. By any measure a major achievement indeed.

So time to sit back and relax? Certainly not. One of the original goals of the Society was to promote the development of the field of system dynamics throughout the world. And although we may have experienced growth, system dynamics is certainly not yet a mainstream line of research and teaching in academia. Many people in academia aren't aware of the existence of system dynamics or have very erroneous ideas about it. In most universities system dynamics courses do not belong to the standard curriculum, or are not even taught at all. 

So, although we may have been doing quite well so far, rethinking our goals and strategies is by no means pointless if we still want the field to grow. 

The issue of the goals and strategies of the Society has been seriously addressed in at least two ways. First, by several of my predecessors in their presidential addresses at previous conferences. In his speech delivered in Istanbul in 1997, George Richardson reflected on the further advancement of the field. He laid out a vision in which he saw a blend of four constituencies, i.e. academic researchers, consultants, practitioners in the private/public sector and teachers/educators in schools, with two overlapping approaches (qualitative systems thinking and quantitative simulation modelling) to advance the field. In Quebec in 1998, Yaman Barlas mentioned amongst other things our low record of scientific publications and the need to improve our communication links with other societies. Last year in Wellington, Jack Pugh explicitly addressed the issue of new priorities for the Society, pointing towards the important role of education while emphasising the need to defend system dynamics against the onslaught of incompetent consultants, a potential danger with increasing growth of the number of practitioners. 

The second way in which the Society's goals and priorities have been addressed (and a number of you may not even be aware of this) was by polling members. The first was the so-called asynchronous meeting over the web to decide on how to best spend surplus funds of the Society. This asynchronous meeting was led by John Rohrbaugh from the University at Albany. Although participation in the asynchronous meeting was somewhat disappointing, it has generated an interesting list of ideas, prioritised from strongly and widely endorsed ideas to those with moderate support. To give you an idea, among the widely and strongly endorsed ideas were: 

Later Jack Pugh pointed out that the issue should not be how to spend money, but one should first think about the most important goals/priorities for the Society and then see if these require money. This does make sense, although I do have to point out that the ideas generated in the asynchronous meeting do seem to have underlying assumptions about why spending money on this idea would help the Society. Anyway, last year Jack in turn invited members to generate priorities. This produced a second (this time unordered) list of ideas, which was reported in the September issue of last year's President's Newsletter. Jack's list contains such ideas as: 

In short there exist many ideas on new priorities and strategies, and it seems to me that the time has come to bring the issue of Society priorities to a close, in other words to make decisions and to start acting, because now the climate seems right to make a couple of major breakthroughs.

When the priorities issue was discussed during the Policy Council meeting in Worcester last March it was felt that it would not be a good idea to appoint a committee to handle matters further, and I promised to personally take a look into the matter. The question for me then became: how to use all of the ideas of past presidents and information generated in the two polls and come up with solid priorities for the future? Clearly the lists, even if ideas are clustered, are simply too long. In addition they contain a wide range of very disparate ideas, and simply having a vote is poor practice to decide on new priorities and strategies. 

So what I did was to carefully study what past presidents have said and analyse the ideas generated by members. After eliminating ideas which people are currently working on, or which have been accomplished, and after clustering ideas, I started looking for priorities subject to the following constraints: 

To make sure that I was on track I checked my ideas with some of the senior people in the field. What came out of this are of course no new priorities, rather priorities which seem critical for a further growth of the field in the next decade. 

Looking at the lists with these ideas in mind, many are related to teaching and education. I guess Jack Pugh was right: broadly speaking an important priority seems to be education. The goal is to train people in building high quality models and to increase the quality of the work done in our field. Much work is currently already done in making system dynamics courses widely available. Still we do not seem to have standard curricula for teaching system dynamics. Many people all over the world seem to reinvent the wheel all the time. To that effect Jack Pugh has installed a curriculum committee that is going to gather existing course material, look for blind spots and hopefully create some order in the existing material. Maybe the committee can even come up with a kind of 'standard curriculum', which all of us may be using. This would help tremendously in making system dynamics courses available to the larger public and increasing the quality of our teaching. 

Why do we train our students in system dynamics model building skills, and leave them out in the cold when it comes to intervention skills?

When we talk about teaching, most of us are inclined to think in terms of teaching system dynamics model building skills. Indeed that is what we need, but my personal opinion is that in many cases this is not sufficient. Talk to people from one of George's four constituencies, those who are in the consulting business. Many will tell you that having high analytical capabilities and model building skills is not always enough. What is also needed is what I will broadly call intervention skills to work effectively with individuals and groups to elicit knowledge, foster learning and alter mental models of clients. I know this may sound unnecessary to a number of system dynamicists, but this is where many of the problems in the real world lie. I vividly remember Mike Radzicki telling us in a panel discussion in Istanbul about his experiences in appearing before a government committee when attempting to acquire a system dynamics project. There were many different kind of model-builders each claiming that their modelling tool was much better and much more appropriate to be used in this particular project. Afterwards, when the committee reported back they said they were struck by Mike's presentation because one of the things that he said was that he did not only have a model building method but also a tool to create alignment/consensus about an issue, something that the others did not have, and something which was dearly needed. 

I also remember several people who were at the panel at that conference responding by saying that creating consensus is not sufficient; instead robust policies should be identified. Admitted, we need robust policies. And indeed, alignment or consensus is not a guarantee that such a robust policy has been found. But, many studies have shown, that without consensus there will be no commitment to the so-called robust strategy, and it thus proves not to be so robust after all, since it may never get implemented. There is a subtle difference between being right and being put in the right. 

So we need system dynamicists who understand some of what the famous sociologist Merton has called the perversity of social logic. Indeed, working with system dynamics logic is by no means trivial, but understanding and working with social logic may be even more complicated. Still there are similarities, one of the most interesting being the counterintuitivity of the nature of social reality. For example: experienced consultants know that one does not convince by trying to convince. But this counterintuitivity may prove hard to put into practice. Who would, for instance, imagine that a famous small group researcher would late in his career when working in a small group himself make profound mistakes and hence seriously impede the performance of the team? To give you an idea of the kind of failure: the mistake he made in the group process would be comparable to an experienced system dynamics model builder using the wrong value for DT in his model without noticing it. Admirably, the person was so honest as to admit it and to even write it down in one of his publications, so that all of us could learn from it. 

Indeed such are the perversities of social logic, and that is why I suggest that training intervention skills next to system dynamics skills are required. To come back to the priorities: teaching and training is of paramount importance, but why do we train our students in system dynamics model building skills, and leave them out in the cold when it comes to intervention skills? We as system dynamicists could be so much more effective if we combine analytical model building skills with social intervention skills. We then have a tool to both find robust policies AND create learning and alignment: we can have our cake and eat it too. I can only hope that the curriculum committee will take these ideas into account if we want the field to grow. 

I think a second critical priority is the quality of our publications. Started from scratch, the System Dynamics Review now has citation ratings comparable to such journals as Long Range Planning, the Journal of the Operational Research Society, and the European Journal of Operational Research. We all know that these citation ratings have their drawbacks, but of course we are also all aware that increasingly these ratings affect the personal decisions of people on where to publish their material. I guess one of our new priorities should be to further increase those ratings through an increase of the number and the quality of papers submitted to both System Dynamics Review and other, related journals. This is something which is, by the way, largely in your own hands. Higher ratings will mean that we will attract more quality papers, which will increase our quality standards, which will in turn expand quotations through papers in other journals, which will again boost our ratings and thus attract more quality papers. For this reinforcing loop to create growth we need two things. To start with, we need more high quality papers being submitted to the Review. If we are honest with ourselves, we have to admit that the quality of both the papers submitted to the annual conference and to the journal could be increased dramatically. Many people seem to support such an idea as is indicated by the number of ideas on the lists related to installing prizes for best work published, both within and outside the journal. I am not sure what the reasons for the low number of paper submissions may be. Maybe too little quality work is being done, or maybe sufficient work is done but lack of time or proprietary rights prevent people from publishing their materials. I don't know, but what I do know is that the number and quality of submissions leaves much to be desired. Second, we need papers on topics that are relevant to societies other than ours. I know there is lots of work to be done within system dynamics, but we will also have to focus on issues and problems, which are of interest to other groups and societies. They should quote us rather then we quoting them! 

Unless there are any other volunteers, I will take the lead in studying this problem in more depth and identifying policies to increase both the quantity and quality of papers. I know I can promise this, because I am quite confident that there are many others in the Society who will want to help me in accomplishing this, because they will be as convinced as I am that this will truly support the growth of the field. 

For the next phase in our existence, it becomes critical to connect with other professional societies.

This brings me to another important priority. Although we might have needed isolation from other societies to get to where we are now, as I said in the beginning, system dynamics can hardly be considered mainstream activity in academia. I meet many people at my university who do not know what system dynamics is, and I guess this situation is not much better at most other universities. We need to increase the number of people being exposed to and thus familiar with system dynamics. One way to achieve this is through a stronger presence within other societies and conferences, for instance INFORMS and Academy of Management. It has been mentioned by Yaman Barlas, as I said, and it seems to be supported by the many ideas on the lists such as:

Some may feel that we face a danger here: the risk of losing our own identity. The flip side of the coin is that through these communities we have a much larger potential audience, provided that we produce relevant and high quality stuff. Advocating isolation in this stage of our existence may mean that we become our own worst enemy when it comes to the promotion of system dynamics throughout the world. It would be much better to consider it as a challenge to show to others the relevance of what we have to say. We have to get into dialogue with other groups, rather than avoid them. In other words what we need here is an open mind, which is by the way, not the same as an empty head. Inevitably this dialogue will not only show our own strong sides but also our weaknesses, and we will have to be prepared to learn from them. There is no doubt in my mind that connecting to other, relevant professional societies will in the longer term assist in the further growth of the field. 

Of course there were also other ideas on the list, which at this point in time seem too controversial to deal with. Most notably these are the issue of certification and the issue of having our conferences all over the world rather than at one or two places. These issues will have to be debated further in the near or more distant future. It is my feeling that these are not as critical for the growth of the Society as the three I mentioned before. And there are ideas which are good but have not been implemented yet, but which should be relatively simple to do. For example reorganising our conferences (and maybe our journal) in such a way that they fit with the four distinct types of constituencies that George Richardson distinguished: academic researchers, consultants, practitioners in the private/public sector and teachers/educators in schools. Maybe we could take our student chapter and colloquium as an example here. 

Ask not what this Society can do for you, ask what you can do for this Society.

Let me then end by summarising the following more or less tangible challenging goals for the next decade, which seem critical to me (and many others) to further grow our field: 

These goals will only get accomplished with the help of many of you, so, paraphrasing John F. Kennedy's famous saying, I would like to conclude by saying: Ask not what this Society can do for you, ask what you can do for this Society. 

Thanks for your patience and attention. 

Jac A. M. Vennix

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Roberta L. Spencer, Executive Director
System Dynamics Society
Milne 300 - Rockefeller College
University at Albany – SUNY
Albany, New York 12222 USA
Phone: (518) 442-3865     Fax: (518) 442-3398
e-mail: [email protected]

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